John Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) once commented that Science Fiction was incompatible with Mystery. In response to this, Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel – A Science Fiction murder mystery which, to this day, is still one of the best technoir books I have read.
It is set in a distant dystopian future where Earth’s population explosion and limited resources have seen humanity cluster together in self-contained megacities. As humanity dwells in these ‘steel caves’, they become more agoraphobic and xenophobic with each passing generation as people forget about the outdoors and forget about open spaces, the concepts becoming archaic and almost mythical.
Because of lacking resources, these megacities are designed to be efficient in various ways: there is no longer a fiscal currency, only a privilege-based caste system, designed to encourage people to work harder for perks instead of abstract wealth; and amenities are shared to reduce maintenance and energy costs (unless your caste provides you with individual amenities,) and to more efficiently utilise available floor-space.
The story is about detective Elijah Baley who is tasked to solve the murder of a robotics expert who lives outside in a “Spacer Outpost”. The Spacers are Earth emigrants that have colonised many other worlds. They maintain low population densities and use extensive robot labour and as a result they live comfortable lives of wealth and excess.
Elijah, with all his inherited prejudices and biases, is partnered with a robot detective, R. Daneel Olivaw, from the Spacer Outpost. Together they must investigate the murder while trying to remain inconspicuous in an environment of fear; riots and hate-crimes against robots within the city being standard. Not only must he be discrete, but Elijah must succeed in order to preserve his social privileges and prevent being declassified into a lower caste.
The characters are likeable – Elijah’s concerns are actually valid and thought-out, and Daneel is just the right mix of computer and personality. They each have decent character arcs, and their relationship is realistic and sometimes down-right funny.
The settings are incredibly unique (and are the precursors to Asimovs Foundation series, with Daneel Olivaw a recurring character) and are well described, and as with any Asimov fiction, the world is logical and makes sense.
The murder mystery is superb. There are so many suspects, so many dead-ends, red-herrings and false trails, that up until the last chapter I had wrongly deduced the murderer at least half a dozen times, and anytime I came close to the truth, Asimov would throw misleading information at me and I would be just as confused as the characters.
This book is of prime dualities – it is an excellent example of how to write a detective murder mystery, and it is also a great example of how to write intelligent science fiction that takes into account technology and civism and politics and how they change over time.
If you love Asimov then you will enjoy this book. If you have never read Asimov, then this is a great introduction for you, and a great introduction to the Laws of Robotics that define almost all his writings, and influenced generations of writers and film makers.
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